Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Point of View

I've been thinking a lot lately about point of view, the viewpoint from which a story is seen and told. A lot of my reading and viewing of late keeps pointing me back to musings on how stories are shaped by who tells them.

My ongoing re-reading of Harry Potter (I'm about ten chapters into Goblet of Fire) probably first brought the issue to the forefront during this season. With John Granger's musings about narrative misdirection fresh in my mind, I've been doing a lot of thinking about that "third-person limited omniscient" view Rowling uses, and how we've seen almost all of the events of the series through Harry's eyes.

Then the other evening I watched, for the first time in many years, the 1984 Milos Forman film Amadeus. Once again, I found myself musing about the way the story was told -- in this case, Mozart's life and career is given to us completely through the filter of Salieri's memories. And because he was a rival composer, one who became jealously obsessed of Mozart's gift (at least in the film, though probably not to this extent in real life) our own understanding of Mozart is completely colored by the fact that all we learn about him comes through Salieri's view.

Not long ago I also happened upon this interesting article by Peter Leithart, entitled Jane Austen, Detective, in which he reflects on how Austen's "control of information" is one of the ways she shows her skill as a detective or mystery novelist (not words we hear used to describe Austen too often). As he put it:

"The other way that Emma reveals Austen's skill as a "detective" novelist is her control of information. She provides most of the information we need to draw conclusions about what's going on, but she doesn't make that information obvious. We don't know that we have it most of the time, because it comes largely through the stream of consciousness that flows from Miss Bates. She holds back information carefully, revealing hints enough that we can figure out something is up, particularly when we are seeing things through the eyes of Mr. Knightley."

Thinking about Austen's masterful use of point of view and the "control of information" within her stories led me to pick up a copy of a contemporary novel called Darcy's Story. It's subtitled "Pride and Prejudice Told From A Whole New Perspective" -- and that perspective is, of course, Mr. Darcy's. Interestingly, the writer has attempted to tell the story through third-person limited omniscient (in faithfulness to Austen, I think) though she keeps us pretty firmly behind Darcy's eyes, instead of Elizabeth's. I'm part-way through it, and as usual when I'm reading an Austen homage, I have mixed feelings about the whole endeavor, but this book too is challenging me to think about point of view -- as a reader, as a writer.

Then just yesterday I was looking through and organizing some books I'd not looked at in a while, and came across a little book by Orson Scott Card called Character and Viewpoint. I bought this several years ago when I was hoping to have more time to devote to writing fiction. Card's use of viewpoint is absolutely masterful, especially when you consider his two novels Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow (my two favorite Card novels). Essentially they are the same story told from different points of view -- the second novel is told by Bean, whom we readers (at least) believed to be a very minor character in the first novel. I have a lot to learn as a fiction writer still, and I plan to go back to Card's chapters on viewpoint in the coming weeks.

As usual, when I find several different things coming together -- movies, books, conversations -- I find myself wanting to follow a stream of thought. For now, I just wanted to do an initial post to mention that I'm in the middle of this stream -- thinking a lot about stories and point of view. I plan to keep thinking out loud about all this in posts to come.


Erin said...

It really is interesting the way Rowling, Austen and so many others use point of view in their stories. It's sort of a difficult lesson to learn that you can't always trust what you're reading because of the way it might be colored by the narrator, or whoever the narrator is focusing on intensely. But it always makes things more fun and helps demonstrate how in both fiction and real life, every person has a different story to tell...

Beth said...

Yep! I'm finding it fascinating. Not that I haven't thought about POV before, but it just seems to be jumping up and dancing in front of me a lot lately. :-)

I think I'd like to ruminate a bit more and post again...